And here lies the significance of the newly discovered document. Written some 20 years before A Letter Concerning Toleration, its very title cuts against the grain of much of what we know of his thought.
“If Papists can be supposd to be as good subjects as others,” he writes, “they may be equally tolerated.” This has led many scholars to suggest, like Walmsley, that Locke was “much more tolerant in certain respects than was ever previously supposed”.
That seems doubtful. What the new manuscript shows was that Locke was aware of the arguments for religious freedom being extended to Catholics but in his published work he rejected them. Catholics were not “as good subjects as others” because their beliefs threatened society and so had to be excluded.
Locke died before finishing the letter, but his revolutionary voice is being heard once again. A manuscript titled “Reasons for Tolerating Papists Equally with Others,” written in Locke’s hand in 1667 or 1668, has just been published for the first time, in The Historical Journal of Cambridge University Press. The document challenges the conventional view that Locke shared the anti-Catholicism of his fellow Protestants. Instead, it offers a glimpse into the radical quality of his political liberalism, which so influenced the First Amendment and the American Founding. “If all subjects should be equally countenanced, & imployed by the Prince,” he wrote, “the Papist[s] have an equall title.”
Here was a visionary conception of equal justice for all members of the commonwealth, regardless of religious belief — a principle rejected by every political regime in the world, until 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. “Locke was willing to contemplate the toleration of Catholics in a fashion which others would never countenance, and he did so with startling impartiality,” write independent scholar J. C. Walmsley and Cambridge University fellow Felix Waldman, who discovered the manuscript. “The tone is emollient, and nowhere replicated in Locke’s works.”
They have it half right. The attitude of English Protestants toward Catholicism in Locke’s day was shaped by over a century of religious conflict. To the Protestant mind, the advance of “Popery” and “priestcraft” represented a temporal and spiritual threat: ranks of religious believers loyal to a foreign potentate, blinded by superstition, hungry for arbitrary power, and latent with schemes of papal domination. Protestant sermons routinely identified the pope with the Antichrist. Locke’s career coincided with the Restoration (1660–88), when Catholics were excluded from public office and their rights of religious worship were severely restricted. By the 1660s, the rise of Catholic France under an absolute monarch, Louis XIV, instigated a fresh round of anti-Catholic fervor. In this acrimonious climate, Locke’s plea for political equality for Catholics was remarkably egalitarian.